Toxic Chemicals in Cosmetics



              Personal care products

There are thousands of chemicals used as ingredients in cosmetics which includes makeup and personal care products for both men and women. People are exposed to many chemicals that are known or probable human carcinogens every day through their use of personal care products and makeup. The average woman uses 12 products containing up to 168 ingredients every day. Men on average use 6 products with 85 ingredients daily. One in eight of the ingredients used in personal care products are industrial chemicals, including carcinogens, pesticides, reproductive toxins, and hormone disrupters. These chemicals are harmful to human health and also to the environment,




Personal Care Products used by both men and women include:

      • shampoo
      • conditioner
      • toothpaste
      • mouthwash
      • deodorants
      • liquid soaps
      • body wash
      • body lotion/moisturizers
      • lip balm
      • hand sanitizer
      • hair dyes, especially dark permanent colours
      • fragrances

Personal Care Products for men also include:

      • shaving cream
      • aftershave
      • styling gel /lotion
      • beard grooming products
      • hair loss treatments

Personal care products for babies include:

      • baby bubble bath
      • baby lotion
      • baby oil
      • baby shampoo
      • baby soap
      • baby toothpaste
      • baby wipes
      • cradle cap treatment
      • diaper cream
      • talcum powder

Makeup products include:

  • Foundation
  • Blush
  • Lipstick
  • Nail polish
  • Mascara
  • Eyebrow
  • Eye liner
  • Eye shadow
  • Makeup remover
  • Skin toner
  • Skin whitener
  • Hair dyes

It is now mandatory for all ingredients to be listed on the packaging of cosmetic products. In some cases the print used is so small that one needs a magnifying glass to read the list. Often the ingredients are listed on a box or other packaging which is disposed of before using the product. Unless you are aware of which chemicals listed are harmful to your health, you are unable to use this information to make informed choices about the products you purchase.


Chemicals of Concern:

Aluminum Salts   Found in the blood after use. Can cause genetic mutations in breast DNA. Use: Found in underarm antiperspirants.

Cadmium Can cause cancer and is also a hormone disruptor. Prenatal exposure alters the development of breasts. Uses: Found in pigments and plastics, children’s toys and jewellery, and food grown in soil contaminated with cadmium. Also present in cigarette smoke and fossil fuel fumes.

Ted Schettler, Ecology of Breast Cancer   p110

Coal Tar Classified as a known carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). Uses: Found in shampoo, scalp treatments, soaps, hair dyes, and lotions.

Ethanolamine Compounds (MEA, DEA, TEA and Others)These chemicals are absorbed through the skin and accumulate in tissues and organs of the body. They have been linked to cancer, infertility in males, and brain development in offspring due to exposure at the prenatal stage. Uses: Soaps, shampoos, hair conditioners and dyes, lotions, shaving creams, paraffin and waxes, household cleaning products, pharmaceutical ointments, eyeliners, mascara, eye shadows, blush, make-up bases, foundations, fragrances, sunscreens.

Ethylene Oxide Classified as a known carcinogen by the IARC.

Uses: Thickeners, solvents, softeners, and moisture-carriers in cosmetics such as creams and lotions.

Fragrance/Parfum A term representing an unidentified mixture of hundreds of possible ingredients which can contain sensitizers, allergens, respiratory irritants, carcinogens, endocrine disruptors, neurotoxic chemicals, or environmental toxicants.

Uses: Sunscreen, shampoo, soap, body wash, deodorant, body lotion, makeup, facial cream, skin toner, serums, exfoliating scrubs and perfume.


Has been linked to allergies, hormone disruption, and cell damage. Uses: sunscreen, lip balm, lipstick, moisturizers and women’s perfume.

Parabens   A group of chemicals with names ending in paraben: e.g. methylparaben, benzylparaben . Parabens can be rapidly absorbed through human skin. They have been found in human breast milk and detected in breast tumor tissue.   They are also endocrine disruptors which interfere with reproductive functions. Uses: Widely used as a preservative in most cosmetics and may also be found in fragrances.—parabens/

Petrolatum/ petroleum jelly   Petrolatum can be contaminated with toxic chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).   Classified as a carcinogen in the European Union.

Uses: moisturizers and hair care products.—petrolatum/

Phthalates   A group of chemicals with names ending in phthalate that make products (usually plastics) softer and more flexible. Diethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP) is listed by the IARC as a possible carcinogen.     While the effect of phthalates on human health is still undergoing research there is sufficient evidence that frequency of exposure can be harmful especially to children under the age of four. In Canada the use of several phthalates: DEHP, DBP and BBP is restricted in baby products and toys.

Although most products contain low doses of phthalates their widespread use in many products used on daily basis increases the frequency of exposure. There is evidence that certain phthalates act as endocrine (hormone) disruptors which may cause physical abnormalities, infertility and certain cancers. They been linked to premature breast development which may increase the risk of breast cancer.

Uses: Phthalates are widely used in personal care products such as nail polish and treatment, soaps, lotions, body washes, hair products (sprays, mousses and gels), skin cleansers and baby products (oils, lotions, shampoos and diaper creams). They are also used in children’s toys, shower curtains, plastic raincoats, vinyl flooring, and medical equipment such as IV bags and tubing.

Canadian Cancer Society

Safe Cosmetics Campaign

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Government of Canada

Government of Canada

Triclosan The presence of triclosan in human breast milk implies its passage through breast tissues. It can cause alteration of breast DNA. It also mimics estrogen which can play a role in the development of breast cancer. Uses: Triclosan is used in antiperspirants/deodorants, shampoo, make-up, lotion, body wash/shower gel, shampoo, toothpaste and mouthwash, cleansers, and hand sanitizers as a preservative and an anti-bacterial agent. In addition to cosmetics, triclosan is also used as an antibacterial agent in laundry detergent, facial tissues, and antiseptics for wounds, as well as a preservative to resist bacteria, fungus, mildew and odors in other household products that are sometimes advertised as “anti-bacterial.” These products include garbage bags, toys, linens, mattresses, toilet fixtures, clothing, furniture fabric, and paints.—triclosan/

UV Filters (oxybenzone, para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA)

Function to absorb ultraviolet light in cosmetics. Detectable levels have been found in human urine and breast milk after application. They possess estrogen mimicking properties which can play a role in the development of breast cancer. Uses: Sunscreen, lotions, shampoo and make-up.


Possible contaminant of polyethylene glycols (PEGs) along with a by-product of the ethoxylation process which makes certain chemicals less harsh. Readily penetrates skin and is listed as probable human carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the International Agency for Research on Cancer and the National Toxicology Program. It has been banned as unsafe for use in cosmetics but may still be present as a contaminant. Uses: Most products that create suds (shampoo, hair relaxer, liquid soap, baby soap and bubble bath).,4-DIOXANE/#


Tips on reducing your exposure to harmful chemicals in cosmetics

      • Don’t purchase personal care products or make up containing the ingredients listed above. This is especially important for products used by pregnant women, babies and children.
      • Read the labels of the makeup and personal care products which you now use. If any of the above chemicals are listed in the ingredients when you next purchase this item search for similar product which contains safer ingredients. Many products are now available which list ingredients which they do not contain such as “no aluminum, no artificial fragrance or preservatives, no parabens or phthalates”.
      • Find out how safe your present products are by using the Environmental Working Group (EWG) Data Base
      • Use fewer products.
      • Wear makeup less frequently and for a shorter duration.
      • Search online for non-toxic products by type e.g. non-toxic *nail polish in Canada. Result
      • You can use the following data base to determine the safety of the product you are now using and search for alternative products. .
      • Consult EWG’s Red List for harmful chemicals in various personal care products.
      • Checkout organic products and health food product stores listed in the yellow pages of your phone directory. Many of them also carry cosmetic products containing natural ingredients.


Handy Pocket Guides to Harmful Ingredients in Cosmetics:

Environmental Working Group

David Suzuki Foundation



Ted Schettler, Ecology of Breast Cancer

Canadian Cancer Society (Prevention and Screening)

Environmental Working Group

Environmental Working Group

Breast Cancer Action

David Suzuki Foundation

Government of Canada